Editorial: Central Oregon needs Congressional help to save water

Central Oregon farmers should not be allowed to become an endangered species.

If the Endangered Species Act is going to require big or small changes in how irrigation districts take water from the Deschutes Basin, Congress needs to provide the money to protect the farmers from being threatened.

It’s encouraging to see that Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, has taken a step toward making money available. The Senate agriculture appropriations bill contains some $50 million in new funding that is more specifically aimed toward fixing the kinds of problems Central Oregon has. The money has criteria attached to it that fits the region’s irrigation districts — a need to make improvements to conserve water, improve efficiency or otherwise improve habitat.

It doesn’t mean the districts are going to get $50 million. The language would have to survive intact on a journey through Congress and be signed into law. Local districts would still have to apply. They would have to compete with other applicants that face similar challenges. But it would be new money available.

Think of it as a nonearmark earmark in the post-earmark era.

A key issue in the Deschutes Basin is using water better. Nearly 90 percent of the streamflow from the Deschutes River in Bend is diverted during irrigation season to irrigation canals, according to the Deschutes River Conservancy. The change is particularly noticeable in the winter when water is stored. Just below Wickiup Dam, flows in the Deschutes River can drop to 20 cubic feet per second starting in the fall, compared to as much as 1,500 cfs in the spring.

There may be partial solutions that can be done for no money. One analysis suggested more water could simply be let through the Wickiup Dam in most years, as much as 100 cubic feet per second more. There’s also a ongoing study of the Deschutes Basin that will attempt to identify other fixes.

Most solutions cost money. Piping canals conserves water, but it’s expensive. For instance, piping all of Central Oregon Irrigation District’s main canals could save as much as 400 cfs for the Deschutes River. It might cost more than $300 million.

That’s why it’s so important for Oregon’s congressional delegation to look for ways for the federal government to help.